Saturday, November 01, 2008

What is a Science Simulation and Why?

Scientists use simulations. Therefore, goes the argument, students can use them in place of science labs. Looking at what simulations are and why scientists use them illustrates the problem with this logic.

A simulation is a model of something. Creating that model does not require a computer. Simulations predate computers by a very long time. One oft-used simulation has students shaking up a box of coins and removing those that land tails up. It's supposed to model radioactive decay.

You can calculate the distance-time relationship of a falling ball and compare to reality. The ideal simulation will not match the real ball due to both random and systematic errors. A Styrofoam ball may be very far from the calculated values.

Scientists know that their models are not perfect and use their own experience and sophistication to seek the aspects of their models that match reality and to understand those that differ. They use models to test their hypotheses when those hypotheses involve difficult formulations requiring extensive calculation.

Scientists do not investigate simulations. The science simulation is a tool. Scientists manipulate simulations to determine how well they fit the real world and then adjust their theories accordingly.

In order to use a simulation in this fashion, you must first investigate the real world and collect data. Then, you create your simulation and compare it to those data.

K-12 students generally don't possess this level of sophistication. Their "models" will be relatively simple equations or theories.

Having these students investigate simulations not only doesn't provide good science for them, it can result in an erroneous view of the nature of science. Here are some examples.

1. Science is precise, producing data without any random errors.
2. Interpretation of data is obvious.
3. Scientists all agree on everything scientific.
4. Experiments produce accurate results.
5. Background and culture do not affect the conclusions of scientists.
6. Science is a linear activity requiring no imagination or creativity.

This list can readily be expanded.

Even though scientists use simulations, they do not investigate simulations. Students shouldn't either because such investigations do not advance their understanding of science and are likely to make it worse.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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